VaYeshev 5770: "Righteousness, Justice, and Reuben Fulfilled"
By Rabbi Menachem Creditor
with thanks for the work of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster and Rabbis for Human Rights-North America
I've found the multiple roles of citizen and rabbi difficult to untangle, despite a commitment to the separation of Religion and State. It is inappropriate to use my status as a religious leader to push a particular agenda in a civic debate. But, as I've encountered social ideas being shouted in God's name, I feel compelled to step forward into the discourse, title and all, perhaps a necessary violation. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1863, "It is as impossible to extricate oneself from politics as it is to avoid the frost."
Human Rights Shabbat, as sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and K'vod HaBriyot: A Jewish Human Rights Network, was designed to promote an authentic Jewish voice for Human Rights. For despite the extremely positive way Jewish communities speak of our dreams, our highest ideals, there is a serious gap between what we claim and what we do. One need only to look at our ancient Jewish narratives to see that historic Jewish aspiration doesn't always lead to action.
In Parashat VaYeshev, what we would label "Joseph's Rights" are violated at least twice. He is sold as a slave (a condition which is all too alive today: 27 million people around the world are enslaved in forms of debt bondage, sex work, slave labor, and domestic servitude) and he is indefinitely imprisoned (which, despite the current US government's work to close Guantanamo Base, is the explicit policy of the current administration to continue holding prisoners without trial in Afghanistan).
These are rights, inalienable by any democratic government or king, which we, as a North American Jewish community, promote with our words. And we claim the Torah's and Jewish Tradition's moral authorities in our self-descriptions. But what do we actually do to addresses these violations of Human Rights?
A provocative midrash demonstrates this inconsistency with stark clarity: When Joseph's brothers plot to kill him (Gen 27:18-19), Reuben intercedes, saying ""Let us not take his life... Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves (v. 21-22)." But in the Torah's description of Reuben's actions, there is a clear inaccuracy: The Hebrew text says that Reuben "Saved him. (v. 21)" We know this isn't the case. While his intention is explicit in the text ("to save [Joseph] from them and restore him to his father (v. 22)"), we see that Reuben leaves his brothers, returns, discovers saw that Joseph is not in the pit, tears his clothes, and says "The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do? (v. 29-30)." He didn't save Joseph, despite the Torah's wording.
The Rabbis in VaYikra Rabbah write, concerning the obviously false claim of Genesis 27:21: "Reuben said [upon reading the Torah's account of his actions], 'If I had only known that the Torah would say that I saved Joseph, I would have done it.'"
This is only too true in our communal and individual lives as Jewish, as Americans, and as Global Citizens. As President Obama stated in his Inaugural Address, there is a "price of citizenship." In using this approach, he actually stepped into a faith-based framework: There are no "rights" in religious tradition, there are "obligations." The Jewish concept of universal justice is Tzedek/Justice, wherein the individual in Jewish tradition is, has the right to expect, and is commanded to achieve Tzedek, as in: "Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof/Justice, Justice, Shalt Thou Pursue! (Deut. 16:20)"
The trickiest part of that approach is the notion of "commandedness." Not all of us believe in God. But then again, no one must. This is one of the supreme values of Judaism - ours is a nondogmatic spiritual system for enhancing particularism in service of the universe. And the very language of our sacred text can meet us where we are, as a whole. God sits, according to Psalms, on Tzedek and Mishpat, on Righteousness and Justice (Ps. 97:2). Without human work to actualize Righteousness and Justice God is not present in our world. It is up to us.
But there's just so much to do. Our world has so much need. Could we possibly eradicate slavery? Can we change the practice of indefinite imprisonment?
A famous Jewish legend involves the concept of the Lamed Vavnikim, the 36 righteous people without whom the world would cease to exist. When one of the 36 dies, another takes his place. But one of the definitions of a Lamed Vavnik is that they don't know that they are one of the 36. (Thinking you embody righteousness often gets in the way.) A dear friend, Dan Schifrin, has a forthcoming book which will likely change the way many Jews (and others) see themselves. In it, he weaves a parable of a young man who, upon learning the legends of the Lamed Vavnikim, decides to become one. He spends an entire day unceasingly helping people across the street, picking things up when people drop them, cleaning litter, until, by the end of the day, he doesn't have any more ability to care. His compassion is completely depleted. He just can't do it all.
And neither can we. But that's no excuse for not trying. We can find one area of advocacy, one of the things we've always claimed to believe in, and start the work. Today.
Reuben didn't fulfill his obligation, the one we know he believed in. Will we?